The Pen, Phone, and Stray Voltage

After pay-gap flap, Obama turns to worker training.

Lightning strike over Buenos Aires' city during a thunderstorm on April 8, 2014.
National Journal
Major Garrett
April 16, 2014, 1:10 a.m.

PITT­S­BURGH — The lengthy de­bate last week over Pres­id­ent Obama’s se­lect­ive stat­ist­ic­al em­phas­is when dis­cuss­ing the pay gap between work­ing men and wo­men drew many re­ac­tions. They are likely to be far dif­fer­ent than the re­ac­tion Obama will re­ceive here Wed­nes­day upon rolling out the first en­deavor of Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s task force on re­vamp­ing work­er train­ing (more on that later).

Of the pay-gap rap, Ruth Mar­cus of The Wash­ing­ton Post found parts “re­volt­ing.” Mar­cus was closer than she knew. Not with the ad­ject­ive but the root noun.

The White House saw the con­ten­tious wrangling over the di­men­sions of the gender pay gap na­tion­ally—even the gnaw­ing over male/fe­male pay dis­par­it­ies at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave — as a gift. A gift the White House wrapped for it­self.

Al­low me to ex­plain. The ques­tion­ing of Obama’s use of a Census Bur­eau stat­ist­ic that the me­di­an wages of work­ing wo­men in Amer­ica are 77 per­cent of me­di­an wages earned by men las­ted al­most all week. The story revved in­to mini-over­drive when the White House de­fens­ively swat­ted away cri­ti­cism that salar­ies on Obama’s watch — for which the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute  used the same me­di­an wages met­ric ap­plied by the Census Bur­eau — showed that wo­men in the pres­id­ent’s em­ploy earned 88 cents for every dol­lar earned by men.

All to the de­light of a White House des­per­ate to in­ject the is­sue in­to the polit­ic­al blood­stream and amp­li­fy oth­er­wise doomed Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic ef­forts to make it easi­er for wo­men to sue and win dam­ages for work­place pay dif­fer­ences. The con­tro­versy that played out on front pages, so­cial me­dia, TV, and ra­dio did just that.

This is the White House the­ory of “Stray Voltage.” It is the brainchild of former White House Seni­or Ad­viser Dav­id Plouffe, whose meth­ods loom large long after his de­par­ture. The the­ory goes like this: Con­tro­versy sparks at­ten­tion, at­ten­tion pro­vokes con­ver­sa­tion, and con­ver­sa­tion em­beds pre­vi­ously un­known or mar­gin­al­ized ideas in the pub­lic con­scious­ness. This hap­pens, Plouffe the­or­izes, even when — and some­times es­pe­cially when — the White House ap­pears de­fens­ive, be­sieged, or off-guard. I first dis­covered and wrote about this in Ju­ly of 2012.

A top White House ad­viser told me last week’s pay gap dust up was a “per­fect” ex­ample of stray voltage. This time it was pre­med­it­ated.

Soon after this year’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress, where Obama high­lighted the pay-gap is­sue, Les­ley Clark, a re­port­er with Mc­Clatchy News Ser­vice, first zer­oed in on the White House’s own pay gap. Clark used pub­lic data on White House salar­ies to de­term­ine that wo­men earned 91 cents for every dol­lar men earned, us­ing the same for­mula in the Census Bur­eau me­di­an wage es­tim­ate cited by Obama. That dif­fer­ence, Clark re­por­ted, amoun­ted to an av­er­age pay of $76,516 for White House wo­men com­pared with $84,082 for men.

The story, sadly, gained little trac­tion. But the White House saw it com­ing and dis­cussed ways to cope with the pay gap and de­bated al­ter­ing Obama’s stat­ist­ics when rais­ing the pay-gap is­sue in the fu­ture — as it knew he would. The de­cision was made to stick with the same 77 cents-on-the-dol­lar pay-gap fig­ure, even though it was im­pre­cise and in­vited un­fa­vor­able com­par­is­ons with the White House wage scale.

Obama’s team ex­pec­ted, in­vited, and, to a cer­tain de­gree, rel­ished last week’s hub­bub. That’s stray voltage in ac­tion.

Or in­ac­tion.

As a the­ory, “stray voltage” ex­ists in a kind of stra­tegic void. It can’t be dis­missed or em­braced as work­able be­cause cre­at­ing con­tro­versy for the sake of con­tro­versy is, well, achiev­able. Like get­ting soup from the White House mess. It’s also self-re­in­for­cing and in­tern­ally di­dact­ic. Every­one looks around and says, “See. There’s con­tro­versy. It’s work­ing.”

But it’s also re­veal­ing when the em­phas­is has shif­ted to a “pen and phone” strategy that el­ev­ates ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion over messy le­gis­lat­ive hag­gling. The pen-and-phone ap­proach has be­come a low-level White House fet­ish, with ef­forts to sidestep Con­gress and place Obama at the cen­ter of the ac­tion all-con­sum­ing.

That will be on dis­play today in sub­urb­an Pitt­s­burgh as Obama and Biden ad­dress the slum­ber­ing is­sue of work­er re­train­ing. The White House will an­nounce $600 mil­lion in grants and com­pet­i­tion for fed­er­al dol­lars to in­crease job-spe­cif­ic work­er train­ing after tour­ing Com­munity Col­lege of Al­legheny County in nearby Oak­dale.

New Cen­tury Ca­reers, a loc­al non­profit, links work­er train­ing to iden­ti­fied job needs and em­ploy­ers. The concept is to make the job-train­ing pro­cess more lin­ear — dir­ectly train­ing people for avail­able job open­ings in man­u­fac­tur­ing and re­lated fields. The Labor De­part­ment will of­fer $500 mil­lion in grants to com­munity col­leges that have put to­geth­er these types of pro­grams, avail­able in all 50 states. Ap­pren­tice­ships serve this pur­pose, and Obama will an­nounce big com­mit­ments from the Big Three auto­makers, John Deere, and oth­er firms to boost ap­pren­tice­ships and will aug­ment the pro­cess with $100 mil­lion in fed­er­al funds. All of this be­cause Obama and Biden see little hope for re­form­ing ex­ist­ing fed­er­al job-train­ing pro­grams — many of them re­dund­ant — on Cap­it­ol Hill. Too com­plic­ated and ar­du­ous.

There is one com­mon thread between the pay gap and job train­ing. Con­gress is a sideshow, and ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion is more com­pel­ling. At least as far as Obama is con­cerned.

The dif­fer­ence is this. The job train­ing an­nounce­ments today have no chance of spark­ing con­tro­versy nearly as lively as the pay gap. But they might ac­tu­ally do more for the eco­nomy, jobs, and wages. In oth­er words, make a dif­fer­ence. Without the stray voltage.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×